The Future Is Here
We may earn a commission from links on this page

The Yellow Peril, Fu Manchu, and the Ethnic Future

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Click to viewWelcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. Back in the 1920s and 30s, when Asian immigration to the US and Europe was picking up steam, prominent science fiction writers like Philip Nowlan and H.P. Lovecraft created speculative scenarios starring massive hordes of horrible, slanty-eyed, intelligent Asians who were either taking over or destroying the world. Yellow peril science fiction was never large enough to be a genre in and of itself, but I decided it was worth traveling back in time to revisit the trend in its historical context. To kick off this topic, let me introduce you to a character you may already know. Fu Manchu, the Chinese master criminal with the infamous long sinister mustache, was created by British author Sax Rohmer around 1912.In novels, movies, radio shows, and comic books throughout the 20th century, Fu Manchu is portrayed as a cunning genius who uses arcane methods and secret societies armed with knives to plot evil murders of white people and the preservation of Chinese power. Fu Manchu quickly came to personify the yellow peril, and has served as an inspiration to many other racist depictions of Asian villains like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon and Dr. No in James Bond.


Long before Westerners feared terrorists and sentient supercomputers, there was the yellow peril. "Pulp magazines in the 30s had a lot of yellow peril characters loosely based on Fu Manchu," says William F. Wu, a pioneer in Asian science fiction writing in the U.S. "Most were of Chinese descent, but because of the geopolitics at the time, a growing number of people were seeing Japan as a threat, too." In his 1982 book The Yellow Peril, Wu theorizes that the fear of Asians dates back to mongol invasion in the Middle Ages. "The Europeans believed that Mongols were invading in mass, but actually, they were just on horseback and riding really fast," he writes. Most Europeans had never seen an Asian before, and the harsh contrast in language and physical appearance probably caused more skepticism than transcontinental immigrants did. "I think the way they looked had a lot to do with the paranoia," Wu says.


The numbers issue is also a recurring theme in yellow peril science fiction: Westerners fear the idea of Asians taking over. In 1927, Lovecraft wrote about "squinting Orientals that swarmed from every door" in The Horror at Red Hook; that same year, in a novella called The Invading Horde, Arthur Burks predicts that Asians "breed like flies, and must eventually find some place for their expanding population or perish." To be fair, Asians weren't always depicted as purely evil. Another well-known character from pre-World War II America was Mr. Moto, the super-polite, clean-cut Imperial Agent of Japan created by novelist John P. Marquand. For the most part, Mr. Moto was just a superb guy-fluent in many languages, a judo master, and the world's best private investigator. But in later films, especially after the war broke out, Mr. Moto also ended up taking on an evil persona. Asians were to the 1920 and 30s what aliens, robots, and sentient computers are to present day science fiction: real or perceived threats to social order. "Science fiction is always really about its own time," Wu says. "It's what many authors call a shotgun approach to the future. Wherever people are in time, the current sociopolitical and scientific questions of that time are what you write about." About a half decade after the yellow peril years, Asian influences reappeared in popular science fiction, but with a slightly different tone. William Gibson's Neuromancer and Ridley Scott's Blade Runner are just a couple of famous examples. "Asian cultural markers are often used as shorthand for the future," says Claire Light, an Asian-American science fiction writer. Light sees a link between this trend in entertainment and the sudden success of the Japanese economy in the 70s and 80s: "At the time, most Americans just thought of Asians as the technological power of the future," she says.

The speculation that China will dominate the world is still prominent in science fiction, yet strangely enough, today's science fiction about China still isn't necessarily about Asians. Joss Whedon's Firefly and Serenity notoriously don't have any Asian characters in them despite the premise of a dominant Chinese culture. "He's a smart guy who turned navel gazing into high art, but he's not really a great world builder," Light says, noting that she only saw a handful of Asian extras-including one in a conical hat!-in Serenity. "All of the older yellow peril stuff is really goofy. It's extreme to the point of being humorous, and anyway, it's too old to worry about." Wu laughs. "It's the newer stuff that concerns me." Wu's 1989 cyborg comedy, Hong on the Range, is still one of the only sci-fi novels with a non-perilous Asian protagonist. But this may change soon. Light, who is also a board member of the Carl Brandon Society, a non-profit for minority authors of speculative fiction, points out that the number of Asian science fiction writers has doubled in the past decade. Other minorities are filling out the ranks of science fiction authors too. If you ask me, an ethnically-diverse group of scifi writers will make the very best future. You know, one without all the peril.